My dream this morning looked like this: I was with a group of people, we were stuck in a classroom-like place, and some authority was keeping us trapped there.
We wanted to escape, but leaving the room meant entering the hall, and in the hall we could be shot. So we ran out and kept ducking into corridors and doorways to avoid being in the line of fire.
I remember waiting anxiously in a doorway, figuring out what I should do, seeing friends jumping in and getting hurt. For whatever reason I took my chances and started running down the hall. Fairly quickly the fear went away, and all of a sudden there were fireworks and dancing.
This is a good example of how quickly mental fears and mental monsters can dissipate, at least in a dream state. Soon after mustering up the courage to put myself in danger, I forgot there even was a danger to begin with.
I think this sort of willingness to face internal danger is exactly the kind of attitude that’s necessary to escape spirals of anxiety, fear, and dread. It’s what you’re taught in all kinds of mindfulness practices. What you resist persists.
But that first step—to embrace rather than resist—really requires courage. There’s always the part of your mind that says, don’t do it, don’t go further, you don’t know how bad it is out there. I’m not sure where that courage comes from, but I think a belief that mental monsters are nothing to be afraid of helps.
Note that I’m distinguishing mental or internal dangers from external dangers. Our fear systems were built to compel us to evade external dangers. But once we learn to conceptualize things like fear and anxiety, the concept of fear becomes a danger in itself, generating an almost-inescapable spiral. Fear of fear generates more fear of fear of fear.
Fear is useful. It helps you avoid danger and pain. The point is to distinguish the felt experience of fear from the mere concept of fear, and not the latter control you.